What Americans Build and Why: Psychological Perspectives
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Singer wondered what went through his mind when he was not playing the public role of Donald Trump. What are you thinking about, Singer asked him, when you are shaving in front of the mirror in the morning? Trump, Singer writes, appeared baffled. Trump, when you are alone? Perhaps it is, in at least one sense. As brainy social animals, human beings evolved to be consummate actors whose survival and ability to reproduce depend on the quality of our performances. We enter the world prepared to perform roles and manage the impressions of others, with the ultimate evolutionary aim of getting along and getting ahead in the social groups that define who we are.
More than even Ronald Reagan, Trump seems supremely cognizant of the fact that he is always acting. He moves through life like a man who knows he is always being observed. If all human beings are, by their very nature, social actors, then Donald Trump seems to be more so—superhuman, in this one primal sense. Many questions have arisen about Trump during this campaign season—about his platform, his knowledge of issues, his inflammatory language, his level of comfort with political violence. This article touches on some of that. But its central aim is to create a psychological portrait of the man.
Who is he, really? How does his mind work? How might he go about making decisions in office, were he to become president?
In creating this portrait, I will draw from well-validated concepts in the fields of personality, developmental, and social psychology. Ever since Sigmund Freud analyzed the life and art of Leonardo da Vinci, in , scholars have applied psychological lenses to the lives of famous people. Many early efforts relied upon untested, nonscientific ideas. In recent years, however, psychologists have increasingly used the tools and concepts of psychological science to shed light on notable lives, as I did in a book on George W. In the realm of politics, psychologists have recently demonstrated how fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past U.
While a range of factors, such as world events and political realities, determine what political leaders can and will do in office, foundational tendencies in human personality, which differ dramatically from one leader to the next, are among them. In this essay, I will seek to uncover the key dispositions, cognitive styles, motivations, and self-conceptions that together comprise his unique psychological makeup. Trump declined to be interviewed for this story, but his life history has been well documented in his own books and speeches, in biographical sources, and in the press.
My aim is to develop a dispassionate and analytical perspective on Trump, drawing upon some of the most important ideas and research findings in psychological science today. Fifty years of empirical research in personality psychology have resulted in a scientific consensus regarding the most basic dimensions of human variability. There are countless ways to differentiate one person from the next, but psychological scientists have settled on a relatively simple taxonomy, known widely as the Big Five:. Extroversion: gregariousness, social dominance, enthusiasm, reward-seeking behavior. Neuroticism: anxiety, emotional instability, depressive tendencies, negative emotions.
Conscientiousness: industriousness, discipline, rule abidance, organization. Agreeableness: warmth, care for others, altruism, compassion, modesty. Openness: curiosity, unconventionality, imagination, receptivity to new ideas. Most people score near the middle on any given dimension, but some score toward one pole or the other. Research decisively shows that higher scores on extroversion are associated with greater happiness and broader social connections, higher scores on conscientiousness predict greater success in school and at work, and higher scores on agreeableness are associated with deeper relationships.
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By contrast, higher scores on neuroticism are always bad, having proved to be a risk factor for unhappiness, dysfunctional relationships, and mental-health problems. The psychologists Steven J. Rubenzer and Thomas R. Faschingbauer, in conjunction with about historians and other experts, have rated all the former U. George W. Bush comes out as especially high on extroversion and low on openness to experience—a highly enthusiastic and outgoing social actor who tends to be incurious and intellectually rigid.
Barack Obama is relatively introverted, at least for a politician, and almost preternaturally low on neuroticism—emotionally calm and dispassionate, perhaps to a fault. Across his lifetime, Donald Trump has exhibited a trait profile that you would not expect of a U. This is my own judgment, of course, but I believe that a great majority of people who observe Trump would agree.
There is nothing especially subtle about trait attributions. We are not talking here about deep, unconscious processes or clinical diagnoses. As social actors, our performances are out there for everyone to see. Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Teddy Roosevelt, who tops the presidential extroversion list , Trump plays his role in an outgoing, exuberant, and socially dominant manner.
He is a dynamo—driven, restless, unable to keep still. He gets by with very little sleep. In his book, The Art of the Deal , Trump described his days as stuffed with meetings and phone calls. Some 30 years later, he is still constantly interacting with other people—at rallies, in interviews, on social media. Presidential candidates on the campaign trail are studies in perpetual motion.
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But nobody else seems to embrace the campaign with the gusto of Trump. And no other candidate seems to have so much fun.
A sampling of his tweets at the time of this writing:. Based on her decision making ability, I can go along with that! Catching up on many things remember, I am still running a major business while I campaign , and loving it! Good news—bad, dishonest journalists! A cardinal feature of high extroversion is relentless reward-seeking.
Prompted by the activity of dopamine circuits in the brain, highly extroverted actors are driven to pursue positive emotional experiences, whether they come in the form of social approval, fame, or wealth. Indeed, it is the pursuit itself, more so even than the actual attainment of the goal, that extroverts find so gratifying.
Arguably the most highly valued human trait the world over, agreeableness pertains to the extent to which a person appears to be caring, loving, affectionate, polite, and kind. Trump loves his family, for sure.
He is reported to be a generous and fair-minded boss. There is even a famous story about his meeting with a boy who was dying of cancer. People low in agreeableness are described as callous, rude, arrogant, and lacking in empathy. If Donald Trump does not score low on this personality dimension, then probably nobody does.
But political candidates who want people to vote for them rarely behave like this. By his own account, he once punched his second-grade music teacher, giving him a black eye. Anger can fuel malice, but it can also motivate social dominance, stoking a desire to win the adoration of others.
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And anger permeates his political rhetoric. I magine Donald Trump in the White House. What kind of decision maker might he be? It is very difficult to predict the actions a president will take. When the dust settled after the election, did anybody foresee that George W. Bush would someday launch a preemptive invasion of Iraq? But world events invariably hijack a presidency. Obama inherited a devastating recession, and after the midterm elections, he struggled with a recalcitrant Republican Congress.
What kinds of decisions might he have made had these events not occurred?
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We will never know. Research suggests that extroverts tend to take high-stakes risks and that people with low levels of openness rarely question their deepest convictions. Entering office with high levels of extroversion and very low openness, Bush was predisposed to make bold decisions aimed at achieving big rewards, and to make them with the assurance that he could not be wrong.
As I argued in my psychological biography of Bush, the game-changing decision to invade Iraq was the kind of decision he was likely to make. As world events transpired to open up an opportunity for the invasion, Bush found additional psychological affirmation both in his lifelong desire—pursued again and again before he ever became president—to defend his beloved father from enemies think: Saddam Hussein and in his own life story, wherein the hero liberates himself from oppressive forces think: sin, alcohol to restore peace and freedom.
Like Bush, a President Trump might try to swing for the fences in an effort to deliver big payoffs—to make America great again, as his campaign slogan says.